Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why do people use Food Banks?

A new report jointly published by Oxfam, the CofE, the Trussell Trust and Child Poverty Action Group busts some of the myths about why people use food banks. Some of the findings are very troubling: they point to a welfare state which no longer works as a safety net, relying on charities to plug the holes. We appear to be heading back to pre-Beveridge days. Here's part of the main summary:

Key findings from the research showed:

  • Food banks were predominantly a last-resort, short-term measure, prompted by an 'acute income crisis' - something which had happened to completely stop or dramatically reduce their income
  • Income crisis could be caused by sudden loss of earnings, change in family circumstances or housing problems. However, for between half and two thirds of the users from whom additional data was collected, the immediate trigger for food bank use was linked to problems with benefits (including waiting for benefits to be paid, sanctions, problems with ESA*) or missing tax credits
  • Many food bank users were also not made aware of the various crisis payments available in different circumstances, and even fewer were receiving them
  • 19-28% of users for whom additional data was collected had recently had household benefits stopped or reduced because of a sanction* and 28-34% were waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided*
  • Many food bank users faced multiple challenges, including ill-health, relationship breakdown, mental health problems or substantial caring responsibilities.  Many were unable to work or had recently lost their job.  The frequency of bereavement among food bank users was also a striking feature of this research
  • Use of emergency food aid in the UK, particularly in the form of food banks, has dramatically increased over the last decade. Figures from The Trussell Trust show that numbers receiving three days' food from their food banks rose from 128,697 in 2011-12 to 913,138 in 2013-14.

Most food bank users interviewed spoke of how severe personal financial crises were often the last straw that had brought them there, only turning to food banks as a last resort when other coping strategies had failed. Deciding to accept help from a food bank was frequently described as 'embarrassing' and 'shameful' but users reported that they would have been completely bereft without it. Considerable personal strength and dignity was also shown by participants, with many displaying great resilience in spite of their circumstances.

The research showed that the very real challenges people face are too often being compounded - rather than assisted - by their experience of the social security system*.

One mum**, who had to give up work to care for her son with serious medical conditions and required intensive support, spoke about her experience when her Child Tax Credits were halved without notice and was horrified by how she was treated. "When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support," she said, adding "we got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.

"I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net - if they're removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?"

The research is based on 40 in depth interviews, and data collected from another 900 users at selected food banks. Over half were there in part because of problems with state benefits.

Food banks vie with gambling as one of the boom areas of the austerity economy. (Remember how we only got hit with that EU levy after drug addiction and prostitution were counted into the GDP figures). It's all pretty depressing. This is where we need our politicians, but it's the charities and the churches who are putting the spotlight on it. Good job we don't stick to our knitting and stay out of politics.

update: links to some of the media coverage of this here, scroll down a little bit.

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